In light of recent global events, supporting all students’ well-being is vital. To encourage this development, schools across Canada have prioritized fostering social-emotional wellness (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning [CASEL], 2019). Research shows that acquiring emotional language advances positive social-emotional wellness and needs to be a focus of support (Lindquist, MacCormack, & Shablack, 2015). However, barriers exist for children who are not competent communicators. Lacking emotional language creates challenges for socialization, connecting with others, regulating, empathizing, and communicating emotional states (Lindquist, MacCormack, & Shablack, 2015). At-risk populations, such as deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children and English as additional language (EAL) learners, often lack emotional language and the ability to develop positive relationships (Crowe, 2019). With support, all children can label emotions and acquire skills that influence well-being. The role of educators in supporting development is essential, and strategies to promote wellness are needed.
How Powerful is an Emotional Vocabulary?
Everyday classroom behaviours such as sharing, conflict resolution, and forming relationships depend on social-emotional competency, which is the ability to regulate one’s emotional states, empathize, communicate, and think independently (Halle et al., 2014). Where students land on the spectrum of social-emotional competence depends on language, influences of parental interaction and cultural norms. Parents support a child’s first language development and knowledge of usage and cultural experiences (Halle et al., 2014). These early experiences are significant as they lay the foundation to teach children how and when to express emotions.
As children experience different emotions, scenarios and reactions, they categorize information in a mental model to inform decision-making. Many researchers believe that emotional vocabulary is essential for children to understand emotion, express themselves successfully, and think (Westby, & Wilson, 2017). Basic words such as happy, sad, scared, and mad often get the point across but do not capture more complex scenarios and sensations. A sizeable emotional vocabulary allows children to add to their mental model, deepen their understanding of their experiences, and expose others’ realities through an empathetic lens (Grote-Garcia & Sharp, 2018). Having the words needed to interpret and express emotion, children are more successful in their self-talk and social interactions (Huttunen & Ryder, 2012).
Who is at Risk? What are the Risks?
Language-delayed children are at-risk for acquiring emotional vocabulary and social-emotional competencies. Vulnerable populations such as DHH and EAL learners show delays correlated with fewer social interactions due to limited emotional vocabulary. When effective communication skills and vocabulary are lacking, children may experience limited peer interactions, delayed social competencies, and behavioural problems (Richels et al., 2014).
For similar reasons, DHH students and EAL learners need support to acquire emotional language and social-emotional competencies. DHH children do not experience the same quality of social interactions as their hearing peers. Delays in language acquisition and limited opportunities to converse with others create socialization setbacks (Ludlow et al., 2010). EAL learners need quality language interactions plus significant exposure to home and new languages to develop an emotional vocabulary. With some children, cultural norms may become confused when growing up bilingually and bi-culturally (Halle et al., 2014). All children with communication barriers need support to differentiate socialization cues, learn how to respond appropriately within social contexts, and use learned emotional words (Halle et al., 2014). The lack of social interactions and delayed emotional vocabulary may slow social-emotional growth for at-risk populations (Rieffe, 2012). Supporting emotional communicative skills leads to success.
What Can Teachers Do?
Children with language delays benefit from evidence-based strategies to build emotional vocabulary. These include the following teacher-led interventions as well as student-led learning.
Children must be explicitly taught to label emotions to build an emotional vocabulary. It is through authentic, communicative interactions with parents and teachers that language learning is best supported. Emotional vocabulary can be supported by oral and written practice with visuals, such as classroom word walls and mood-meters, that allow teachers to specifically target words regularly in an age-appropriate manner (Grote-Garcia & Sharp, 2019). Coaching students through the process of connecting a personal memory to the emotional term being presented (e.g., feeling blissful calls upon memories of a birthday celebration) can deepen a learner’s understanding of the vocabulary word (Randolph, 2018). Expressing feelings through emotional vocabulary encourages interpersonal understanding among children and their peers and promotes conflict resolution skills (Nix, Bierman, Domitrovich, & Gill, 2013).
Social Skills Training
At the core of social-emotional learning are the competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2019). Specific social-skills training promotes social-emotional competencies necessary for long-term student wellness. School programs can target competencies and encourage emotion coaching, such as practice in calming down through breath work and sharing feelings, and provide lesson plans on taking turns, caring, helping, and self-control (Nix, Bierman, Domitrovich, & Gill, 2013).
Teaching children using visually appealing and engaging narratives found in picture books is another useful tool for educators. Reading stories aloud, choosing picture books with emotional faces, and encouraging student-led retelling promotes further discussion. Storytime dialogue on characters and their emotions allows teachers to model and students to practise emotional vocabulary. Discussion around facial cues in picture books helps children identify and express feelings (Grote-Garcia & Sharp, 2019; Richels et al., 2014).
Incorporating imaginative play in the classroom promotes memory (replaying past experiences or imagining pretend events), sequencing activities and themes, and describing feelings and ideas (Westby & Wilson, 2017). Teachers can support imaginative play by planning lessons that engage children in enjoyable and exciting interactions that build emotion recognition skills and vocabulary (Westby & Wilson, 2017). Sensing questions such as “What do you see?” or “What do you hear?” support the sharing of feelings and perceptions while children play. When children use their imagination to role play (e.g., as a firefighter) or act out social situations (e.g., mimic grocery shopping), they are learning to identify with the perspectives of others and their emotions (Westby & Wilson, 2017).
Learning to identify emotions and regulate behaviour promotes positive relationships among children and their peers, teachers, and communities. Building a robust emotional vocabulary supports DHH and EAL learners’ social-emotional competence. This occurs through specific interventions, nurturing relationships, and a rich linguistic learning environment. Educators play a pivotal role in helping DHH and EAL students overcome communication barriers by using both teacher- and student-led classroom strategies. Engaging with strategies to support the development of emotional vocabulary is key to unlocking the potential of diverse student populations, contributing to social-emotional competencies and overall wellness.
Grote-Garcia, S., & Sharp, L. A. (2019). Going from “happy” to “elated”: Two instructional tools that expand the emotional vocabulary of young learners. Illinois Reading Council Journal, 47(1), 2–8.
Halle, T. G., Whittaker, J. V., Zepeda, M., Rothenberg, L., Anderson, R., Daneri, P., Wessel, J., & Buysse, V. (2014). The social-emotional development of dual language learners: Looking back at existing research and moving forward with purpose. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(4), 734–749. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.12.002
Huttunen, K., & Ryder, N. (2012). How children with normal hearing and children with a cochlear implant use mentalizing vocabulary and other evaluative expressions in their narratives. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 26(10), 823–844. https://doi.org/10.3109/02699206.2012.682836
Jiménez Catalán, R. M., & Dewaele, J-M. (2017). Lexical availability of young Spanish EFL learners: Emotion words versus non-emotion words. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 30(3), 283-299. https://doi.org/10.1080/07908318.2017.1327540
Ludlow, A., Heaton, P., Rosset, D., Hills, P., & Deruelle, C. (2010). Emotion recognition in children with profound and severe deafness: Do they have a deficit in perceptual processing? Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 32(9), 923-928. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803391003596447
Nix, R., Bierman, K., Domitrovich, C., & Gill, S. (2013). Promoting Children’s Social-Emotional Skills in Preschool Can Enhance Academic and Behavioral Functioning in Kindergarten: Findings From Head Start REDI. Early Education & Development, 24(7), 1000–1019. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib. ucalgary.ca/10.1080/10409289.2013.825565
Randolph, P. T. (2018). Using Emotions and Personal Memory Associations to Acquire Vocabulary. ORTESOL Journal, 35, 39–42.
Richels, C., Bobzien, J., Raver, S. A., Schwartz, K., Hester, P., & Reed, L. (2014). Teaching emotion words using social stories and created experiences in group instruction with preschoolers who are deaf or hard of hearing: An exploratory study. Deafness and Education International, 16(1), 37–58. https://doi.org/10.1179/1557069X13Y.0000000028
Rieffe, C. (2012). Awareness and regulation of emotions in deaf children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30(4), 477-492. DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-835X.2011.02057.x
Westby, C., & Wilson, D. (2017). Using Pretend Play to Promote Foundations for Text Comprehension: Examples From a Program for Children Who Are Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Topics in Language Disorders, 37(3), 282–301. DOI: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000125
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Tessa Arends taught in Canadian elementary schools for five years before accepting her current position abroad. She holds a Masters in Educational Research and a Bachelor of Education. Tessa is passionate about children and continually develops her approach to teaching emotional, social and academic skills. She values creativity and designs learning environments that support experimentation.
Marilee Folkman Stebner
Marilee Folkman Stebner has taught middle and high school students for five years. She is passionate about cultivating students’ social-emotional wellness, building positive relationships, and sparking curiosity through learning. Her teaching interests include discovering creative ways to support English language learners reach their educational goals. She holds a Masters in Educational Research and a Bachelor of Education.
Lorna Wick has taught in both Alberta and British Columbia. At present, she works for the Calgary Board of Education as a Strategist / Teacher for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students. Lorna holds a Masters – Educational Research, Graduate Diploma in DHH Education, and Bachelor of Education. She believes collaboration provides opportunities for children, families, and educators to develop best practices for learning. Lorna is curious about knowing how learners learn and ways to build social-emotional wellness with low-incidence populations.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2021 issue.